Zardari to return Punjab to Sharif

Pakistan president relinquishes control of eastern province to main opposition party.

    Zardari is to hand back control of Punjab to the opposition after weeks of rule by governor

    Zardari 'U-turn'

    Kamal Hyder, Al Jazeera's correspondent in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, said that the speech represented a "major U-turn" in policy for Zardari.

    Although the opposition welcomed the speech overall, it remained concerned over the extent of the Pakistani president's powers and Zardari's apparent unwillingness to relinquish them easily, Hyder said.

    "Some people say that he could have relinquished those powers on his own; now Zardari has told the parliament that they have to form a committee which will deliberate.

    "Given Pakistan's history of committees, it means procrastinating over the issue," he said.

    Sharif court case

    Zardari last month ordered a governor loyal to the central governor to rule in Punjab after the supreme court disqualified Sharif and his younger brother, Shahbaz, from holding elected office.

    Sharif joined a popular protest which led to the restoration of Pakistan's chief justice [AFP]
    But while Zardari appears to have relinquished central government control over the province, Sharif and his brother are unlikely to take direct control of Pakistan's most populous province, Hyder said.

    "In spite of the fact that Zardari said the PML-N can choose its own candidate, he also knows that there is still a court case pending against the Sharif brothers and therefore the Sharif brothers and PML-N will have to bring in somebody else," he said. 

    Zardari's decision to impose governor's rule had led Sharif to join an opposition movement aimed at the reinstatement of Iftikhar Chaudhry, the country's sacked chief justice.

    Chaudhry had been dismissed by Zardari's predecessor Pervez Musharraf when he declared emergency rule in late 2007 to extend his presidency.

    Chaudhry was returned to his post by Zardari earlier this month, following protests by lawyers and opposition activists.

    Moeed Yusuf, a Pakistan analyst and research fellow at Boston University, said that it was "absolutely" a victory for Sharif.

    "I think Zardari has found himself cornered in the past few weeks by the opposition and this was the only opportunity he had to win back some of the lost trust from the people of Pakistan," Yusuf said.

    "There's no question that the opposition is riding a high wave. The real question is if the opposition wants to push it to a point where everything looks like a loss for president Zardari, in which case he may retaliate and come back with his own hard-hitting measures."

    US strategy

    Zardari also used his parliament address to welcome a new US strategy against opposition fighters operating in Pakistan, while saying that his government would work to crack down on them.

    "The government will not allow the use of its soil for terrorist activities against any other country even also not allow anyone to violate our sovereignty," Zardari said.

    "I think if one looks at [recent] American policy, one would find that the Americans themselves have been saying that they would like to make contacts with the Taliban; they have been trying to differentiate between different types of Taliban"

    Khalid Rahman, political analyst at the Insititute of Policy Studies

    The comments by Zardari come a day after Barack Obama, the US president, announced a new strategy against Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Pakistan.

    The US plan will commit thousands more troops and billions of dollars to the war in Pakistan's neighbour Afghanistan, while trebling US aid to Pakistan itself. 

    "The US presidency's approach now represents a positive change," Zardari said.

    "It is an endorsement of our call for economic and social uplifts as a mean to fighting extremism."

    The US package comes amid allegations from Washington that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has provided money, military training and intelligence information to al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked fighters.

    Khalid Rahman, political analyst at the Institute of Policy Studies, told Al Jazeera that Pakistan's intelligence agencies "could not deny" the contacts they are alleged to have nurtured with opposition fighters.

    "But coming at a time when Barack Obama has announced a new policy for this region, this allegation has only reinforced the perception of the Pakistani people that this [the ISI] is going to be the real target of the American establishment," he said.

    Asked if Pakistan was merely appearing to support the new US plan while still maintaining contacts with the Taliban, Rahman said that Washington is looking for dialogue with certain Taliban factions.

    "I think if one looks at [recent] American policy, one would find that the Americans themselves have been saying that they would like to make contacts with the Taliban; they have been trying to differentiate between different types of Taliban," he said.

    "If [the US is] going for this kind of arrangement, while blaming the Pakistan intelligence agency, it only reflects that the Americans themselves are playing a double game."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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